Eugénie Rigault is a goose girl, grown up but not reconciled to life in the foie gras countryside. In France, in the late eighteenth century, a girl who follows her dreams and her lover to Paris, believing that she can remake herself merely by stepping on a train, is bound to be quickly disillusioned. The lover from a prominent family abandons her, alone and pregnant. The artist for whom she models leaves her at the mercy of merciless landlords and the streets. The whorehouse where she winds up hands her an herbal potion to abort the child—and she pours it in a potted palm.
Carole DeSanti’s The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is silk brocade, gleaming in the candlelight, and the silken luxury of real chocolate in a tart. And it’s the unspeakable isolation of giving birth alone in a shabby room, of a diseased customer breaking ribs and beating hope out of a young woman with milky breasts and a feverish infant. It is artistic notoriety, loyal women friends in the back streets of Paris, rampant duplicity and greed, callous lovers, corrupt bureaucracies and betrayals. Eugénie keeps trying to remake her world to match her dreams and that world is carved up and ripped away from her without warning time and time again.
The baby, Berthe, goes to a foundling home that is no better than a prison and from which Eugénie never stops trying to ransom her. The lovers, patrons, courts and house madams are a backdrop of misery that seduces, uses and controls. Through it all, the young women pour themselves into survival and schemes for self-determination and independence. One wealthy Confederate expat lover keeps Eugénie in style so her presence will conceal his homosexuality. The end of the Civil War abruptly ends his Paris exile and her comfortable life. Another lover paints a portrait of her that wins a salon prize and achieves a level of fame. “An Unknown Girl” is the name of the painting and it might be a stand-in for the model herself. Eugénie’s life is something unknown to her. She sees her motives only after she has paid the penalties for them. She spends a decade trying to reclaim her child and reconcile her sense of self with her reality.
The Siege of Paris is an unavoidable factor in the lives of women who live at the edge of society and ruin. Eugénie is forced to sort the lies and treacheries and find a price she can pay to survive. The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is the tempestuous story of a mesmerizing heroine who seems real and remarkably contemporary in our own conflicted and chauvinistic times. Really good read, lovely prose, compelling protagonist and great story. When an author gets fiction right it is such a gift to a reader. DeSanti has been generous with this one.
The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. Carole DeSanti | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012